Mei Xu grew up in China, coming to the United States in 1992 to pursue a graduate degree. After graduating with a Masters of Arts in Communications and Journalism, she found herself stuck in a job that was unsatisfying. So she started thinking of alternatives, unleashing an entrepreneurial spirit that had been lying within. She and husband David founded Pacific Trade International and signature brand Chesapeake Bay Candle in 1994, which has since become one of the largest candle/home fragrance suppliers in the world, supplying major retailers in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Here is part two of her story:
Q: How do you develop fragrances?
A: Fragrance development is one of the most exciting aspects of the product development and design process! Early on, Chesapeake Bay Candle adopted a unique position in partnering not only with candle fragrance vendors, but also with specialists in the fine fragrance industry. This has allowed us to establish strategic alliances with key vendors in fragrance development and delivery technology. When developing a new collection it is always important to ensure it has a good balance of floral, fruit, woodsy, ozonic, or gourmand fragrances.
We try to introduce a new fragrance with every collection by creating a fresh fragrance pairing. Our fragrance team identifies a strong trend in fine fragrance, and if we think it might work for the home category, then we start experimenting—in partnership with our vendor partners. Once we start the development process, there are numerous rounds of testing involved. Extensive testing helps us meet our own quality standards and to bring an optimal combination of fragrance notes and wax combinations to the market.
Q: How did you find a manufacturer?
A: In the beginning we purchased candles from suppliers in China. During that time, we were able to establish relationships with industry insiders and experts. After we learned how to make candles, we decided that we wanted to establish our own manufacturing operations for Chesapeake Bay Candle. In the summer of 1995, we were able to persuade a factory to set up an exclusive supplier relationship with us. With that setup, we were able to focus on what later became Chesapeake Bay Candle’s three pillars of success: great designs, fabulous fragrances, and affordable prices.
Q: Were there any setbacks in product development that had to be overcome?
A: I believe no matter what product you develop, especially if you are branching out into new categories, there are always hurdles. That is very normal. Small setbacks are something we have to deal with all the time. Also, the anti-dumping duty applied to the candle products out of China is another major issue we need to deal with. If you are thinking about importing or exporting, I suggest starting with the Commerce Department to find out if there are any import/export restrictions or anti-dumping duties, to make sure the business is viable.
Q: What was the biggest learning curve in terms of developing your product?
A: Whether you want to build a brand, or grow your business quickly, building a brand takes a long time. And, you have to avoid many [retailers] who would discount your products… and make your brand less desirable for other retailers. So striking a balance and figuring out what you can do about branding—and what you want for sales volume—is not only necessary, but an important part of your business plan.
Q: Through what markets are you selling?
A: Chesapeake Bay Candle is partnering with some of the most renowned retailers in the country—Target, Kohl’s, Pier 1 Imports, JC Penney—you name them. After more than a decade in wholesale, I was very curious to explore a retail concept. When we decided to launch our second brand, Blissliving Home, I therefore decided to make it directly available to consumers. Blissliving Home has an online boutique store (www.blisslivinghome.com) and is available through catalog business, but we also partner with specialty stores, boutique stores, and high-end department stores around the globe. In Asia, we have decided to open our own boutique stores to gain more control of the brand. We now have over forty stores there.
Q: What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing your product?
A: During the start-up years we focused relentlessly on growing the business and establishing our operations. The results speak for themselves—our enormous sales growth has landed Chesapeake Bay Candle a spot on Inc. Magazine’s list of America’s 500 fastest growing private companies—twice! Only in recent years have I started to recognize the importance of branding. I have learned that making a brand accessible and understandable to the public is extremely important—and today we consider branding a top priority for both Chesapeake Bay Candle and Blissliving Home.
Q: How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and mom? What falls by the wayside?
A: I think every working woman, not only mothers and business owners, are struggling to balance their professional and personal lives. For me, family always comes first. That is the bottom line. Of course my business demands a lot of my time and attention. But no matter how hectic business is, I try to make it home for dinner every night. Usually I work a couple more hours in the evening after putting my boys to sleep. Business also demands a lot of travel—but whenever possible I try to arrange for day trips. David and I agree to never travel at the same time so that at least one parent stays with the children.
Q: What kind of support system do you have in place personally and professionally?
A: I am blessed with a very strong managerial team and an exceptional assistant to support my work. They keep my back free so that I can focus on business development strategies and the overall development of Chesapeake Bay Candle and Blissliving Home. I am also blessed with a wonderful nanny and personal assistant. My nanny adores my boys and the boys adore her. My nanny and my personal assistant have this very rare quality to anticipate my needs before I can even articulate them. I really feel they are part of the family.
Q: How did you finance your business?
A: When David and I started the company, we used our savings and received financial support from our family. Later, I was able to secure a small business loan from Bank of America that was backed by the Small Business Administration of the U.S. Government. This loan was granted to us because we were already working with key accounts such as Kirkland’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Bloomingdale’s.
Q: How much money have you invested so far? How do you feel about that?
A: Chesapeake Bay Candle was profitable from the first year we were in business. We continue to put profits back in the business to support our strategy for growth. I am also investing profits into our new interior lifestyle brand Blissliving Home.
Q: What is your company’ s current financial picture and what are your projections?
A: Chesapeake Bay Candle has been growing at an annual growth rate of twenty per cent over the past three years. In 2007 we will hit a sales volume of $60 million and we project to continually grow at fifteen to twenty per cent in the years to come. Our strategy for growth is based on our continued design and fragrance innovation and our ability to provide accessible pricing. It also includes branching out into new and innovative product categories, growing with existing accounts, as well as new key accounts.
Q: What has been your greatest success or "high point" in the process?
A: I have been blessed with many “high points”—it would be difficult to single one out … This year has been exceptionally successful. First Chesapeake Bay Candle was named by Target as the only strategic partner in the entire candle and candle accessory department. This was a tremendous honor and a recognition that we do not take lightly. Second, at the New York International Gift Fair in the summer, one of Blissliving Home’ s duvet sets was recognized for its outstanding design. Blissliving Home is a very design-driven brand, and the entire team is so passionate about what we do—so it was very special to receive this public recognition. And then in fall, the Asian Women In Business organization (AWIB) selected me for its annual Entrepreneurial Leadership award. When I first learned about this recognition I was so humbled… and then I started to think about the long way we have come. It has been a long journey from the day in 1992 when we arrived in the United States until today. A journey on which we have been joined by many friends, without whom we couldn’t have made it…
Q: Have you experienced a “low point” and if so, how did you rally yourself to get back on track?
A: Fortunately, I have never experienced a low point, per se. But in business, as in life, you always experience challenges. It is not pleasant, but it is the reality. With the help of a strong team and the partners we have made over the years in the business community, we have always been able to overcome the hurdles on the way.
Q: Did anyone in particular help you along the way?
A: Obviously David has been a driving force behind our success. And I have already mentioned Peter French who taught us how to make scented candles. Honestly, there are many extraordinary people who have helped us to establish the business. From sales representatives and marketing groups who have helped us to understand the American retail industry, to our global vendor partners who always educate us about new trends and technologies, to public relations agencies who help us connect with the public.
Q: What advice would you offer other moms developing their products/ideas?
A: I think it is crucial to identify a niche in the market that is right for you and to become a true expert—not only in regard to your product, but also in the industry. I don’t believe it is possible to excel if the market niche or the product category does not work for you.
Q: Is there a resource that proved to be invaluable that you would like to share with other moms?
A: Obviously the Internet has become an incredible source of information. But what has always been most important to me are the people who cross my way. Everyone I meet might be the one to have the next big idea for the business. And I am always curious to hear what people think about our products, our strategy. Talking to business partners, friends and customers is a priceless resource for business advice!
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: Many moms face the challenge of whether they should go back to work or stay at home. I hope this story inspires them to believe that it is possible to do what you are passionate about, make a profit and make a great family, all at once!
(Part 1) | Part 2
This story originally appeared in "The Mom Inventors Insider,” the monthly newsletter of Mom Inventors, Inc.